Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 2:05 - Released 7/20/99

The 1963 version of The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise, has been referred to as "one of the most terrifying films to date," "terror in the first degree," and "the best haunted house film ever to be created." It was a subtle film with nary a ghost nor a drop of blood, the terror being created in the viewer's mind by the power of suggestion. Jan de Bont (Speed, Twister), the director of the 1999 version, would have done well to take some cues from Wise's production, but being a lover of overdone special effects, he chose to make The Haunting another in-your-face computer extravaganza, leaving nothing to the imagination, and overfilling our eyes and ears with tons of digitally generated goodies.

Based on the Shirley Jackson novel The Haunting Of Hill House (adapted by David Self), this film is about four people who enter a huge, supposedly haunted mansion to participate in a study on insomnia. Dr. Jeffrey Marrow (Liam Neeson), who is really studying the effects of fear, lies to his three subjects because "you don't tell the rats they're in a maze." We first meet Eleanor (Lili Taylor), a mousy, shy woman who has spent her life caring for her domineering mother. Eleanor feels the need for adventure, for something interesting to happen to her, and she thinks the spooky mansion is a perfect place to start. Then we have Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a worldly bisexual who's up for anything involving risk and/or sexual experimentation. And third is Luke (Owen Wilson), a wisecracking surfer type who has little belief in haunted mansions and the like.

The foursome arrive at the mansion, whose architecture and furnishings seem to be designed solely for the purpose of being creepy (no one would ever want to live in such a house of horrors), and meet its caretakers, Mr. and Mrs. Dudley (Bruce Dern and Marian Seldes). The Dudleys make no pretense at cordiality, and Seldes plays the old lady like a comic role, being unnecessarily spooky in her delivery. But our dream-seekers are undaunted, and the two ladies are actually enamored by the place. As they begin taking their psychological tests, weird things start happening, mostly to Eleanor. She hears noises. She sees faces. Her expression in the mirror does not exactly mirror her expression. At this point in the film, the creepiness is actually rather effective (although the acting is consistently bad), because de Bont's approach is more subtle, like the Wise production. But then all hell breaks loose.

Scenes of all hell breaking loose are something de Bont prides himself on, and as usual he goes totally overboard. The audience reaction goes from startled gasps to jeering laughter to longing glances at the exit. During the last 20 minutes of film, the horror derives from the fact that it's still not over yet. I have no idea how such an accomplished actor as Neeson got roped into this dog, but he surely must have trouble sleeping, and not because of things that go bump in the night. Except maybe his career.

The one thing I enjoyed immensely about this movie is the set decoration. The interiors of the house (when they aren't heaving with some monster's face) are astoundingly beautiful; one would love to explore such a mansion, especially if it was purported to have spectral residents. But the setting should not pull focus away from the storyline, and I couldn't help wishing the actors would just shut up and let me look at the set. **

Copyright 1999 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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